ISSN 2330-717X

The Philippines: Back To The Table, Warily, In Mindanao


The success of peace talks between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) will depend on each side convincing the other that it has the will and capacity to deliver – and both have doubts.

The Philippines: Back to the Table, Warily, in Mindanao, the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, looks at the variety of factors that will influence the outcome of negotiations that resumed in February under the administration of President Benigno Aquino III.

“Quite apart from the difficulty of negotiating the territory and powers of a sub-state, Manila wonders about the MILF’s command and control, especially given a recent split, and the MILF wonders about the government’s backbone”, says Bryony Lau, Crisis Group South East Asia Analyst. “On top of this, many in both Mindanao and Manila are sceptical that any autonomous entity can rise above the corruption, clan feuds and warlordism that plague the region”.


The Aquino government has brought some fresh faces, new ideas and can-do optimism to the table, and both sides have learned from the collapse of talks in 2008 that regular consultation with their respective constituencies is crucial. But the two parties have to recognise a few hard truths.

One is that sooner or later, these talks will have to converge with separate negotiations over much of the same territory between the government and a rival insurgency, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which is smaller and deeply divided. Half-hearted efforts to encourage a common MILF-MNLF strategy have fallen by the wayside, but it may be time for some sustained initiatives by civil society at a grassroots level and by international partners with the groups’ leaders.

A second is that the existing Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) has been so dysfunctional that the MILF needs to do more to convince sceptics, even in its own heartland, that the sub-state they are working for will be a qualitative improvement. The disillusionment with ARMM has come into focus in recent months with an intense debate about whether or not elections for the region’s governor, originally scheduled for August 2011, should be postponed for two years to allow a caretaker administration to do some serious housecleaning.

The MILF also has to decide what to do about a powerful commander, Ameril Umbra Kato, who broke away from its armed forces in December, but says he remains loyal to the MILF as a whole. Kato was one of three men whose units engaged in serious violence after the collapse of talks in 2008, and Manila worries whether the MILF leadership can control him. One of the few commanders who is also a Middle Eastern-trained cleric, Kato has a large following, and there have been concerns that he might persuade other commanders to join him. This has not happened yet, but it is also not clear that the MILF leadership’s attempts to persuade him to return to the fold have worked.

The talks underway now could produce one of three outcomes: a final peace; protracted negotiations that never reach an end but have enough forward momentum to keep the MILF rank and file on board; or breakdown.

“History is not on the side of successful resolution, and the obstacles are enormous”, says Sidney Jones, Crisis Group Senior Adviser to the Asia Program, “but this time the combination of new political will in Manila and low expectations in Mindanao may just be a formula that succeeds”.

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